The Fountainhead of Youth

2010-02-21-the-fountainhead

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Padriac Steinschneider, honcho of the New York chapter of the Congress of the New Urbanism, was as miffed as I was by the reflections of the Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster on the CNU proceedings at Dallas last week. Lamster is one of those whose pretense to even-handedness on the style issues roiling CNU arises from their willingness to concede that traditional architecture is great – so long as it is 100 years old. To put all that angst in perfect context, here’s a brief quote from Paddy’s email criticizing Lamster’s calumniation:

A couple of years ago at the [CNU] congress in West Palm, [architect] Stefanos [Polyzoides] nailed the problem with the profession of architecture when he drew the parallel that an architect who makes the world a more difficult place to live in by designing buildings that demonstrate the anxiety of our times is the equivalent of a doctor who practices by spreading instead of curing disease.

And here is a lengthy quote from Paddy’s email, riffing off Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, published in 1943. Howard Roark was an independent-minded architect, Peter Keating was the sort of orthodox classicist that Andres Duany thinks almost all of today’s classicists are, and Ellsworth Toohey was an architecture critic in Rand’s bestselling novel.

Last week in our discussions about style and what is wrong with the profession, there were several discussions about the academies and how they teach the process of architecture. I made a statement that the first problem that seems prevalent in most schools today is that they are trying to teach to the Howard Roarks, which constitute a minute percentage of their students, instead of the Peter Keatings who fill the chairs in the studios. The reality is that the Roarks do not need the encouragement to seek excellence. By being a Roark, they will find their own way. But the Keatings, without an educational program that teaches the skills that they will be asked to use when they graduate and get hired to be part of a team in an office, end up spending a lot of money for no real gain. …

Reading Lamster’s article “Why is So Much Architecture Junk,” I suddenly became aware of who he really is in this confusion of Roarks and Keatings. Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce you to Ellsworth Toohey. Like a hamster on a squeaky wheel, Lamster’s prose creates an irritating noise, which demands a certain attention, since it is hard to ignore, but in the end just adds to the cacophony. I read the article hoping that I would come to a suggestion that could lead to a better place with the hope of less junk, but, like Toohey, who disdained the common man, while he whipped them into a frenzy, Lamster suggests that, in the end, it is the fault of the general public. Like Big Daddy, I smell the powerful odor of mendacity. And like Big Momma reminded us of what Big Daddy liked to say, I say “bullshit.”

Excellent stuff. Here’s my column from 1993, the 50th anniversary of the book, with my own take on Roark, Keating and Ellsworth about two years after I started writing about architecture. And here is my old column:

The end of modern architecture July 22, 1993   MY QUEST to discover the roots of anger in the world of modern architecture took me, recently, to The Fountainhead, the novel by Ayn Rand published 50 years ago. It is a philosophical story pitting “the man” against “the masses,” but since protagonist Howard Roark is an architect whose unconventional work alarms the traditionalists in his profession, it is also about architecture, modern architecture in particular.

The book reinforced the belief of a generation of Americans that modern architecture represented a courageous rejection of hidebound tradition. “The Fountainhead is the message that shaped the late modernism of the 20th Century,” says architecture critic and Yale Prof. Vincent Scully. “I read it as I was getting out of the service in 1946. I would read 10 pages and want to throw it against the wall.”

Maybe he destroyed his edition before reaching the passage – on page 474 in my 695-page Signet paperback – where it becomes clear that Rand was, after all, no fan of modern architecture. “Ellsworth Toohey came out in support of the cause of modern architecture,” she writes on page 474. Art critic Toohey uses his column in The New York Banner to fight individualism. For Rand, Toohey represents organized mediocrity, the enemy of excellence. His endorsement of modern architecture is properly understood as her rejection of it.

She explains: “A new school of building had been growing for a long time: it consisted of putting up four walls and a flat top over them, with a few openings. This was called new architecture. The freedom from arbitrary rules, for which Roark’s mentor Cameron had fought, the freedom that imposed a great new responsibility on the creative builder, became a mere elimination of all effort, even the effort of mastering historical styles. It became a rigid set of new rules … a new Parthenon, an easier Parthenon in the shape of a packing crate of glass and concrete.”

Roark represents neither modern nor classical architecture. How could he? He is the Individualist.

If Ayn Rand were writing her book today, however, she might make Roark an architect striving to work in the classical tradition, seeking to revive the lost art of beauty in building design. Her villains would be the hidebound modernists who purged architecture of its traditions, and ever since have duped and terrified clients into accepting buildings whose design they loathe.

This, in fact, is what has happened in American architecture since Rand published The Fountainhead in 1943.

Tom Wolfe describes it well in From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). “After 1945 our plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEO’s, commissioners, and college presidents undergo an inexplicable change. They become diffident and reticent. All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul known as modern architecture. And why? They can’t tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can’t figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.”

Wolfe explains that, like socialists, modern architects played on guilt in the quest for power. They claimed to struggle for “the workers” against the bourgeoise, plain “worker housing” against the rich architecture of capitalism. Americans, ever awash in feelings of guilt, swallowed it in architecture as in politics.

Fortunately, the watered-down socialism of the New Deal and the Great Society, although equally bogus, was never quite as destructive as the 80-proof stuff in the Soviet Union. In The Fountainhead, the concern of the liberal elite for the masses is exposed as bogus and destructive, intentionally so.

Toohey again delivers the message. On the page before he embraces modern architecture, he engineers the success of a bad play – not just to gratify his ego but to undermine society’s ability to distinguish quality from trash. This is key to his plan to empower the masses, with himself as first of equals. But the Banner folds and he is out of a job.

For modern architecture, too, the jig is up. Postmodernism is less a reaction against modernism than a rear guard fighting to save it. But a rearguard action is nevertheless a retreat, and modern architects can read the writing on the wall. It makes their heads hurt, because they understand it all too well.

It remains only for classical architecture to stage its comeback.

[An earlier version of this post had Mark Lamster speaking at a session called “Is CNU Burning?” He actually spoke at the panel on “How to Rebuild Architecture.”]

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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